Much of the discussion at a legislative hearing on motor fuel prices Monday centered on the merits of “alternative fuels” such as E-85 and biodiesel.

As Republican state Reps. David Reis and Ron Stephens listened in a room at the Effingham County Building, speakers wondered aloud whether a greater reliance on crop-based fuels could relieve the nation’s dependence on petroleum products.

Curtis Ile of Mount Carmel, who identified himself as an ex-farmer, said the state should do whatever it can to promote a proposed ethanol plant near Grayville.

Ile added that E-85 — a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline — may have a wider appeal than previously believed, using personal experience to illustrate his point.

“I drive a 1999 Pontiac van that’s not supposed to have it (E-85) in it,” Ile said. “It doesn’t like it at full strength, but at 50-50, it runs like a top.”

Ile admitted E-85 is not the perfect solution to skyrocketing fuel prices, but he said the benefits outweigh the detriments.

“It does hurt your gas mileage some, but it enables jobs to stay in the United States,” he concluded.

But petroleum lobbyist David Sykuta, executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Council, said the general public is a long way from relying on crop-based fuels as its primary source of fuel.

“Gasoline is still the best value with the best performance,” Sykuta said, adding E-85 users saw a 40 percent drop in miles per gallon.

“You have to use more fuel to go the same distance,” he said.

Sykuta added sheer numbers mitigated against the prevalence of ethanol as a primary motor fuel, at least in the near future.

“National production of ethanol is about 3.75 billion gallons a year. But the national demand for motor fuel is about 155 billion gallons a year,” he said, adding it could be “generations” before enough ethanol is produced to supplant gasoline as the primary motor fuel in the United States.

A representative of the trucking industry weighed in with his testimony at Monday’s hearing.

Matt Hart of the Mid-West Trucking Association said rising fuel prices have caused tremendous hardship in the trucking industry. But he said the effects of those prices on truckers could be mitigated from a full repeal of the commercial distribution fee imposed two years ago and partially rolled back by the Illinois General Assembly earlier this year, as well as an increase in weight limits.

Hart added Illinois truckers appear to be embracing the use of biodiesel as a way to offset high diesel fuel prices.

“There has been a 1,500 percent increase in the use of biodiesel over the last two years,” he said.

Reis hosted Monday’s hearing as part of a series of meetings conducted throughout the state by the House Republican Task Force on Motor Fuel Prices.

The hearing opened with a PowerPoint presentation on the reasons why fuel prices have increased so dramatically in the last three years — from $1.35 per gallon in 2002 to more than $3 per gallon in recent weeks, especially in the Chicago area.

According to the presentation, a typical Illinois household uses 17 gallons of motor fuel a week. At current fuel prices, that means the family spends about 7 percent of income on gasoline. For rural families, that burden is even heavier, according to the presentation narrated by a Republican legislative aide.

Truckers, the aide said, average about 2,500 miles a week using 454 gallons a fuel. At current prices, she said, the typical trucker spends about $1,300 a week on fuel.

The presentation also was used to outline the process by which gasoline prices are developed. Pump prices are a composite of crude oil prices, production costs and state and federal taxes.

According to the presentation given Monday, the composite that created the $3.08 per gallon gasoline Effingham area drivers were seeing earlier this month includes:

• $1.61 per gallon for crude oil.

• 84 cents per gallon for refining and transportation costs, as well as private sector profits.

• 19 cents per gallon for state motor fuel taxes.

• 18.4 cents per gallon for federal motor fuel taxes.

• 16.5 cents per gallon for state sales tax, a figure that varies wildly in different areas of the state.

• 8.2 cents per gallon for “additional local sales taxes,” depending on the area.

• 1.1 cents per gallon for environmental fees.

Reis said after the hearing that he is not optimistic the General Assembly can resolve fuel price issues when legislators return to Springfield late next month, even though he has repeatedly criticized the use of a sales tax on gasoline.

“I’m not real hopeful that we can repeal the sales tax,” he said. “This administration and (legislative) leadership has a death grip on revenues.

“But we need to have a good discussion on possibly changing the current sales tax on gasoline to a flat tax, as well as talk about how the money (from gasoline tax receipts) is spent,” Reis said.

Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or bgrimes@effinghamdailynews.com.

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